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Can you really get a good workout without any weights?
Nowadays it can feel as though weight- barbells, kettle bells, dumbbells, "lifting heavy"- is what matters most in a workout. As Hugh Jackman once said, “If the bar ain’t bendin,' then you’re pretendin'," right? But ascribing to this sentiment completely ignores the fact that fitness goals are subjective.
While one person may want to add 50 pounds to their bench press and bulk up, someone else may want to shave five seconds off their 40 yard dash and lean out. These two people probably won't be following the same bar-bending program, despite Hugh's advice. (Sorry, Hugh.)
There are plenty of ways to get a full-body workout that effectively builds muscle, improves endurance, and burns fat, all without weights. Read on as I break down one of my favorite bodyweight workouts.
It’s important to dedicate about 10 minutes at the beginning of any workout to warm up. Warming up increases blood flow to our muscles and- you guessed it- raises our body temperature, which helps prepare us for aerobic activity, and prevent injury and excessive muscle soreness.
Begin with some dynamic stretching: active movements where muscles and joints go through their full range of motion. (This is opposed to static stretching, where a position is held for several seconds- these are best performed after a workout, not before.) We want to activate the parts of our body we intend to work out.
Perform these dynamic stretches:
Marching Straight Leg Kick & Reach - Stand tall with arms at your sides. Kick one leg straight out in front of you while reaching for that foot with the opposite hand. Return foot to the ground and repeat on the other side. Alternate kicks for 30 seconds.
High Knees - Stand with feet hip-width apart. Raise your left knee to your chest. Quickly switch to lift your right knee to your chest, as if running in place. Continue the movement, alternating knees and pumping your arms at a brisk pace for 30 seconds.
Walking Knee to Chest - Stand upright, feet hip-width. Take a step forward and raise your knee up as high as you can into your torso and grasp your knee with both hands. Hug the knee into the chest while maintaining a tall posture. Return foot to floor and repeat with other leg. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement. Alternate sides for 30 secs.
Squat Walks - Begin with your feet shoulder width apart. Push your butt back and hinge at the hips until thighs reach parallel (or near parallel) with the floor, keeping core engaged and spine neutral. Maintain the squat as you walk forward a few steps, and then backwards. Perform for 30 seconds.
Next, we’ll get into our first aerobic circuit. It’s helpful to work the abs/core early in the routine to help further activate our core to support us later on.
This circuit is four rounds. Perform each movement in order for 30 seconds, with 15 seconds of rest between exercises. Rest for thirty to sixty seconds between rounds.
Floor Bridges - Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor, approximately hip-width apart. Slowly push through your heels and lift your pelvis off the floor until your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line.
Bicycle Crunches - Lie on your back with legs extended. Lift shoulders and heels off the mat, pressing lower back into the floor. Bend one knee into your chest to touch the opposite elbow, keeping the other leg fully extended off the ground. Return to starting position, then crunch to the opposite side. Repeat for 30 seconds.
Alternating Bird-Dog - Kneel on mat on all fours, hands under shoulders and knees under hips. As slowly as necessary to maintain balance, raise your left arm straight out in front of you while raising and extending your right leg up out behind you. Keep your core engaged and your back and neck neutral. Return to starting position, then repeat by raising and lowering right arm and left leg in same manner. Alternate opposing sides for 30 seconds.
Plank Hold - Plant hands directly under shoulders (slightly wider than shoulder width) like you’re about to do a push-up. Ground toes into the floor, squeeze glutes, and engage your core to stabilize your body. Your legs should be working, too — be careful not to lock or hyperextend your knees. Neutralize your neck and spine by looking at a spot on the floor about a foot beyond your hands. Your head should be in line with your back. Hold for 30 seconds. Don't forget to breathe!
Take another minute or two to rest and get some water before we move on to our second and final circuit of this workout.
This circuit consists of three movements that target the glutes, thighs, chest, and triceps: bodyweight squats, push-ups, and mountain climbers.
Squats and push-ups will be for ten reps each, with 20 seconds rest between the two exercises. After your final push-up, take another 20 seconds of rest, then perform 30 seconds of mountain climbers. We'll do this for three rounds with a minute of rest between rounds.
10 Bodyweight Squats - Start with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Keep your chest up, engage your abs, and shift your weight into your heels as you push your hips back into a sitting position. Pause briefly at the bottom of the squat, squeeze glutes and drive knees out as you return to standing, and repeat.
10 Push-ups (modify if necessary) - Get into a plank. Maintaining a straight body position from head to heels and with elbows flaring about 45 degrees from your ribcage, lower yourself until your chest nearly touches the floor. Pause, then push yourself back up without letting head or hips dip. Repeat.
Mountain Climbers - While in plank position, bring one knee into your chest, then back out again while bringing the opposite knee in, as if you're "running" against the floor. Repeat for 30 seconds.
Congratulations! You're almost at the end of the whole workout! All that's left is to stretch and cool down. It's important to stretch at the end of any workout to help avoid injury, gain flexibility, and continue to build muscle after the workout is over.
Make sure to stretch all the muscles we just worked out, as well as any other areas you feel are tight. Don't forget to drink plenty of water!
Cool down with these static poses for 30 seconds each:
Pigeon stretch - From all fours, bring your right knee forward towards your right wrist. Depending on your anatomy, it may be just behind your wrist, or at the outer or inner edge of it. Experiment with what feels right for you, finding a good stretch through your outer hip while avoiding any discomfort in your knee. Your right ankle will be somewhere in front of your left hip. Slide your left leg straight back behind you and point your toes, heel pointing up to the ceiling. Square your hips forward. Use some support (a yoga block, pillow, or rolled blanket) under your right buttock if needed, to keep your hips level. As you inhale, come onto your fingertips, lengthen your spine, draw your navel in, and open your chest. As you exhale, walk your hands forward and fold your torso over your knee. Rest your forearms or forehead on the mat.
Butterfly - Sit upright. Bend your knees so the soles of your feet touch and your legs make a diamond shape. Use your hands to hold your feet together. Allow your back to gently round as you softly fold forward.
Frog Stretch - Kneel on the mat with forearms and palms flat on the floor, shoulders over elbows. Slowly slide your knees apart, keeping feet at hip width. Gently rock your hips back towards your feet, supporting yourself on your forearms as much as necessary. Hold, breathe, and release. This one can be intense, but it's an amazing hip opener!
Cobra - Lie facedown on the floor with legs extended behind you a few inches apart. Tops of your feet should rest on the floor — don't tuck your toes, as this can crunch your spine. Place your hands under your shoulders with your fingers pointing toward the top of the mat. Hug your elbows in to the sides of your body. Press down through the tops of your feet and pubic bone. Spread your toes. Inhale as you lift your head and chest barely off the floor, keeping lower ribs in contact with the mat. Draw your shoulder blades together and your heart forward. Keep shoulders dropped down away from your ears. Press tops of thigh firmly into the floor as you push through the palms and begin to straighten your arms, gently lifting your chest off the floor. Beginners and those with neck pain should keep their gaze toward the ground, while those with more flexibility can bring their gaze to the sky. Work within your range of motion and do NOT crank your neck back.
Neck Stretch (Be gentle!) - Place one hand on your head and the other hand behind your back (this stabilizes your shoulder). Very gently pull your head towards one shoulder until you feel a comfortable stretch. Hold for 3 seconds, relax, and repeat.
And you're done! I hope you find this workout rewarding. Once it starts to get less challenging, don’t be afraid to find ways to up the difficulty to continue your progress- less rest time, higher reps, etc. All you need for a bodyweight workout like this is water, a watch, and the drive to work out!
Meet the Author
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Growing up, Matthew Foley struggled with his weight and often felt at a loss about how to lose it. Although he was active in boxing and karate since the age of five, he always seemed to be ten to fifteen pounds overweight. As his insecurity grew, Matthew was at the gym more and more, burning himself out and having a hard time getting to the gym. The breakthrough finally
came when Matthew let go of the pressure and began working out to find joy in who he is in the moment: not obsess over what he wasn’t yet. This clearer mindset led to an interest in working out smarter, not harder. He learned then that starting back with the basics and developing an individual routine leads to more consistent improvements and recovery.
Through his own weight-loss journey, Matthew discovered he wanted to spark the same love of fitness that he found in himself in others, and went on to achieve his NASM personal trainer certification. He has spent the past two years helping clients of different ages, experience and handicaps gain flexibility, strength and endurance. More than anything, Matthew believes fitness is for everyone as long as they have the dedication, know-how and space to do so. As a personal trainer Matthew is dedicated to keep his clients safe, informed and remind them that they’re already doing a good job just by being dedicated.
“To me, the hardest part about going to the gym is getting to the gym. That’s why we have to remember to celebrate the small victories. When you wake up dreading a workout but stay committed to a routine you deserve to feel proud. It’s about being consistent not intense: smarter not harder.”
If you'd like to train with Matthew, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org